Thursday, July 08, 2010

A Response to Radiolab's Report on the Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler Female / Photo by Joel Trick (USFWS)

The protection and recovery of endangered species remains a controversial issue almost 40 years after the Endangered Species Act was passed. Nicholas Lund, who formerly blogged at birdDC and The Birdist, writes a guest post about how WNYC's Radiolab reported on the recovery program for the Kirtland's Warbler....

I have been a big fan of the Radiolab podcast for a few years now.  It’s wonderful in the way many NPR programs are: entertaining, insightful and unabashedly wonky in a time when a lot of entertainment races to appeal to the lowest common denominator to get ratings (anybody tuning in to River Monsters or Moose Attack! on the Discovery Channel this week?  Me neither.)

As the show is wont to do, a segment on Radiolab’s most recent episode, a collection of scientific efforts that resulted in “unintended consequences” titled “Oops” (listen here:, left me thinking.  The segment discusses the impact of Kirtland’s Warbler protection on the small town of Mio, Michigan and confronts difficult questions about the value of conservation.  After first listening to the story I felt that certain aspects were misleading or incomplete.  I exchanged some emails with John about the story, and he agreed to give me some space here to ramble about the story from a birder’s perspective.

You really should just listen to the segment (it starts just after the 27-minute mark at the link above), but here’s a little summary in case you don’t.  The Kirtland’s Warbler, likely the rarest bird in the US, was not faring well in one of its few remaining habitats, the area near the town of Mio.  An extensive and grisly program of culling Brown-headed Cowbirds (who were hurting Kirtland’s populations with their parasitic nesting techniques) had succeeded in preventing further Kirtland’s declines but was not restoring the population.  However, a new strategy – prescribed burning to restore the Kirtland’s favored young jack pine habitat – showed promise.  In fact, after one large fire in 1980, Kirtland’s population skyrocketed.

The problem is that the fire didn’t go as planned. Inexperience with the technique and a lack of care allowed the fire to rage out of control, burning several houses and killing a Forest Service worker named Jim Swiderski.  After the fire, and to this day, many of the residents of Mio question whether the continued efforts to maintain the Kirtland’s Warbler are worth the death of Mr. Swiderski.  The story’s reporter, Lulu Miller, questions whether the loss of life and the constant expenditure of money and manpower are worth the continued existence of a bird that can’t evolve to survive on its own. 

I have a few issues with the way the story is presented.  First, I feel that Ms. Miller created an incomplete picture of the town’s relationship with the bird.   According to the story, “a question lingers in the air” about whether Kirtland’s protection was worth the life of Mr. Swiderski, and several of the townspeople are heard saying that they’ve never even seen the bird, the implication being that a human life might not be worth this insignificant animal. 

What the story doesn’t say, at least explicitly, is the benefits the town receives from having the warbler around.  By the story’s own admission, tourists – who need places to stay and things to eat - come from all over the world to Mio to find the Kirtland’s.  I think it’s safe to say that these people wouldn’t be bringing their tourist dollars to Mio if the bird was extinct.  So, regardless of whether or not most people in town have ever seen the bird (have they ever looked?  It’s not clear), there can be no doubt that the town is benefiting from Kirtland’s protection.  The fact that this aspect was left out of the story seems a glaring oversight and an oversimplification in order to serve a “birders v. townspeople” narrative. 

Second, I take issue with the story’s offhand dismissal of the “because it’s the law” justification of species protection.  In the story, when Ms. Miller is questioning whether all of the effort on behalf of the bird is worthwhile, she dismisses a Forest Service employee’s explanation that the reason they spend so much time on Kirtland’s protection is because they have to, it’s the law.  The question that goes unanswered, though, is “Why is it the law?”  It’s the law because, as a nation, we’ve decided that protecting species from the effects of human impact – our own impacts – is important.  Kirtland’s Warblers are not declining because of natural causes but a human one: the disruption of the natural cycle of wildfire. 

The Endangered Species Act wasn’t created in a lab, it was passed by our representatives in Congress.  As a nation we decided that we were tired of species going in the direction of the Passenger Pigeon and the Bison, and decided that species should be protected from our impacts.  While there is of course the question of whether humans have anything but a moral obligation to protect species (it’s a juicy moral question hinted at during the interview with Mr. Swiderski’s parents), there’s no debating that it was a question answered by the American people, who tasked that Forest Service employee with protecting the Kirtland’s.  I feel that the failure to mention the national mandate of endangered species protection is a serious omission, and one that could provide a proper frame for better understanding the tragedy surrounding the death of Mr. Swiderski.